HARRISBURG -- An expected appeal of the state's voter ID law to the commonwealth's shorthanded Supreme Court could result in a deadlocked ruling along political party lines.
The state's top appellate court typically has seven members, but has been one shy since the suspension of Republican Joan Orie Melvin due to her pending criminal charges.
The remaining six justices are split evenly with three Democrats and three Republicans. A majority of at least four justices would be required to overturn the Commonwealth Court decision to uphold the law.
Following Wednesday's ruling from Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, on the Republican-driven proposal, as well as a recent comment from a top House Republican that the law would "allow" the GOP presidential nominee to win Pennsylvania, Senate Democrats said Wednesday that a partisan outcome would be "particularly disturbing."
"I think this decision cries out for a unanimous or a 5-to-1 clear decision," said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County. "Upholding a weak opinion by an evenly divided partisan court I think would send a terrible message about the integrity of our judicial process and the state of our politics in Pennsylvania."
Legal experts said prognosticating on the court's decision is tricky business. Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne Law School, described the six jurists as "independent-minded."
"They're not people who would try to throw the game for their own team," Mr. Gormley said. "There are justices from both sides of the alleged divide making decisions that sometimes surprise you."
He said a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court is "highly unlikely," instead projecting some sort of split decision.
Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law professor who has been tracking the voter ID case, said he believes the denial of the injunction likely will be upheld, given the carefully crafted opinion and a tendency to defer to what a trial court decides.
He added that, while he's not a close observer of Pennsylvania's appellate courts, judges generally want to avoid ties, particularly those on party lines.
While the court doesn't have a choice on whether to hear the appeal, it does have a choice on whether to do so in an expedited fashion.
If the justices decide to hold arguments before the Nov. 6 election, those would occur during the court's September session in Philadelphia or its October session in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice also is reviewing the state's voter ID law. Federal officials late last month requested a list of the state's registered voters, as well as lists of residents with state-issued photo ID cards.
Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said Wednesday that officials had not yet responded, but that they intend to do so within the 30-day period outlined in the request.